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A recent report suggests our food scraps could be put to good use as an energy source.

Clara Olshansky
August 29, 2017

We know that food waste is a major problem. According to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization, about a third of all the food produced in the world gets wasted every year, amounting to 1.3 billion tons. Domestically, this food waste builds up in landfills and releases methane, which is roughly thirty times worse for our environment than carbon dioxide. Many creative solutions have been devised to combat the food waste issue—some clever companies are turning food waste into booze and into new foods—and there's even a Cal Poly graduate fellowship dedicated specifically to studying how we can globally reduce food waste. A new paper published in the Journal of Cleaner Production has highlighted another use: Turning organic waste into a fuel source.

Converting food waste and other organic waste (paper, wood, and yard trimmings, for example) into energy could greatly reduce the amount of discarded food in landfills while also cutting back on methane emissions. Using anaerobic digestion—when microorganisms break down biodegradable materials without oxygen—energy producers could create biogas and renewable natural gas from food scraps. Plus, using pyrolysis—breaking organic material down at really high temperatures—companies can convert garbage in general (municipal solid waste, or MSW) to renewable natural gas, bio-oil, diesel, jet fuel, and biochar, a charcoal product used to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

These practices could not only reduce the amount of methane emissions coming from the landfills we already have, but would also reduce the need to create future landfills. According to Uisung Lee, the researcher who led this study for the Department of Energy's (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory, "These are the areas where we can realize the greatest environmental benefits while also producing transportation fuels." Obviously, eliminating food waste in any capacity is ideal. But turning whatever waste we have left over into energy could reduce fossil fuel consumption, boost our energy independence, and in general put our trash to much better use.